I usually hit the MoCCA Art Festival every year, and hop over to the Albany Comic-Con for a couple of hours whenever it fits into my schedule, but I have pretty much resigned myself to attending only two regular conventions now: Baltimore Comic-Con and the New York Comic-Con.
San Diego is fun, but ridiculously expensive and overcrowded, and most of the people I would want to see tend to appear at the New York show anyway. And all the conventions of the size of Baltimore or larger have basically the same stuff for sale, so it's not like I'm missing out on anything. Do people even go to conventions to buy things anyway? Seems like you can just get what you're looking for online, so why bother lugging large purchases around for hours?
(I say this as someone who routinely drops a couple of hundred dollars on half-price hardcovers at every convention I attend, but I question my own buying wisdom, constantly.)
As far as I'm concerned, Baltimore and New York are two of the best conventions in the country, anyway. They both have amazing guest lists (though creators are far, far, far more accessible at the Baltimore show) and plenty of things to see. New York is closer to home, and I can shack up with relatives for free, but there's not an after-hours scene the way there is at most of the larger conventions. New York causes everyone to disperse and to go hang out with small pods of like-minded people. Baltimore is a smaller convention and a small cluster of hotels, and everyone knows where everyone else is likely to convene for drinks and good late-night discussions.
I wasn't quite sure I would make it to Baltimore this year, though. I had planned to attend, certainly, and secured a Press Pass well in advance. But I never booked a hotel. Or figured out how I would actually get there. See, my family was vacationing just south of Boston the week before the convention, and I was undecided on whether or not to take a flight from Boston to Baltimore, and have my wife drive back across the state with the kids, or whether I would drive down, dropping my family off at home on the way through.
I almost talked myself out of going, as much as I love the Baltimore convention, because as anyone with kids knows, a family vacation is actually pretty exhausting, and I really didn't feel like flying out of Logan Airport or driving the 11 hours to get to Baltimore (with a detour home along the way).
But a few weeks before the show, my pals Jason Horn and Robert Wilson let me know that they needed another roommate for the weekend, and I was back in. I couldn't resist spending quality time with those two guys, even if they would be spending the whole convention behind tables, sketching like prostitutes, rolling around in their piles of artistically-earned cash. If you aren't familiar with the work of Jason Horn and Robert Wilson, here's a crash course:
Jason writes and draws "Ninjasaur", which he -- no joke -- describes as "'Bone' meets 'Hellboy,' though I've never actually read 'Bone.'" You might think that the title of the comic would be self-explanatory, but that's not good enough for Mr. Jason Horn. He wants you to buy his work, and love it. And you should. Or just read it for free online. He's also a hell of a colorist, but as he described to me, he doesn't have a ton of time to make comics, so he'd rather spend his non-day-job time doing that, then coloring someone else's work. A good point.
Robert is a newer face on the convention circuit, having made his debut only a year or so ago at, I believe, HeroesCon in Charlotte. He's already an excellent artist who you may have seen in some of his Project Rooftop appearances or in his self-published "Knuckleheads" comic, or his cool pin-up work. He's currently working on a top secret project called "Laser Joan," but it wasn't so top secret that he couldn't show off some of the pages at the convention. It was strong stuff, for sure.
Jason and Robert are always great to hang out with, and the only time I would ever have a chance to see them would be at conventions, and that's precisely why Baltimore does always manage to have a great guest list. It's a place that working professionals in the industry know they can meet up with their old and new friends, and maybe eat some delicious breakfast plates at Miss Shirley's while they're at it.
So I made it to Baltimore after all, and I had a wonderful time, losing my voice by the end of the weekend, like I always do. Rather than just narrate my adventures from Friday evening through Monday morning, I'll just give you a sample of some of the things that are worth mentioning. A little Baltimore assortment, 2011-style.
1. "Loose Ends" looks even more gorgeous in print than it did in the digital copy I wrote about in my overwhelmingly positive review last month. My shop never ended up getting its copies of #1 before the convention, so the first time I saw the physical object was at the table with Jason Latour and Rico Renzi. Renzi, by the way, colored the cover mock-up for the "Laser Joan" cover, in a case of hey-it's-a-small-world. But if I were doing a comic, I'd want Rico to color it, definitely. The guy has a sensibility that's different from everyone else doing the job, and he's great at it. He's also a big fan of Miss Shirley's Chicken and Waffles, and can often be caught glancing at his cellphone longingly, savoring the photo of his favorite breakfast.
Hard to blame him.
He's also the artist behind the sensational character find of 2011: Överslaüght. Masterminded by Latour and Renzi, I suggested his weapon of choice would be "a sword, that's also a gun," and the collaborative magic resulted in... well, let's just say we're waiting for the phone calls from Bob Schreck and/or Hollywood to start kicking in, any minute now.
2. The convention floor was still buzzing with talk of the DC September relaunch. That's been the topic of the entire summer, and with the first book hitting this week, it was still on everyone's mind. Dan DiDio was bopping around the convention, setting up meetings with the DC writers (and maybe artists) who were in attendance. Next week's column will have some further thoughts on the relaunch, but I heard a few interesting tidbits over the Baltimore weekend like (a) DC wants these new comics to be more visually interesting than the "talking heads" comics we've been seeing in the mainstream over the past few years, which is why they are pushing the artists as co-writers or strong collaborators, (b) everyone I talked to who is actually working on a new series for the relaunch says that DC has been almost totally hands-off, and let the artists and writers do their thing, and (c) with so little lead time for the artists, we may see fill-ins almost across the board on the third or fourth issues of the relaunched books. That last point is definitely a concern, and we'll see how DC handles it.
It's all well and good to put more of the storytelling in the hands of the artist, but when the artist has to be relieved for an issue around Christmas time, and someone has to come off the bench to draw an issue of an unfamiliar series, what happens to the storytelling then? I guess we'll see.
3. I picked up the entire run of "Challengers of the Unknown" volume 3, the one mostly drawn by John Paul Leon. I haven't read it yet, but the art looks great, and I'm sure I'll be able to get a future column out of the series, even if it's only to write about what went wrong. And if it turns out to be a forgotten gem, all the better. I also picked up a couple more "Hex" issues, because I am completely infatuated with that series about a post-apocalyptic future where Jonah Hex roams around blasting robots and mutants. I have read a bunch of issues before, but I never managed to complete my collection of the series. Not only is it far better than its reputation, if it even has one, but the final few issues were drawn by Keith Giffen in his Jose Muñoz style that's still so weird and gorgeous, long after he abandoned it.
4. I met Adam Knave last year, but I finally got to meet his writing and editing partner D. J. Kirkbride at this year's show, and not only did those two guys with a Harvey award for "Popgun" Volume 4, but they also debuted their special limited edition "Agents of the W.T.F." comic at the show. It's a damn funny comic, about a Scottish warrior in the body of a child and a "Native American princess from an America of another dimension" and their action-packed expoits.
You know how "Deadpool" comics are supposed to be funny, but they never are? (Well, except "Deadpool MAX," of course.) Knave and Kirkbride are actually funny, in their comics, in their Internet personas, in real life, in their books about monster cereal, and in their ninja poetry.
4. I picked up all five volumes, plus the prequel book, of Michael S. Bracco's "Novo," which I haven't yet read, but I'll tell you why I picked it up. It showed ambition, and serious artistic integrity. The guy's a middle school art teacher, and he not only wrote and drew all of these volumes, but he finished the story he set out to tell, and he's out there on the convention circuit showing off his completed story to the world.
At so many of these conventions, "Artist's Alley" can be seriously depressing. They are all tiny little storefronts for shlocky crap by untalented artists trying to foist bad colored pencil sketches ripped off from a J. Scott Campbell centerfold or merchandise based on "high-concept" characters like a zombie that's also a kitten. You don't see a lot of actual comics in artists alley, or even comic book artists. There's a reason Rob Granito was able to make a living for so long at these kinds of shows.
So when Michael S. Bracco is out there, doing the work, not making a few bucks selling marker sketches of Supergirl or "prints" traced from a Wildstorm cover image, he deserves your time. He certainly earned my respect, when I saw his work. And when I bought his books, he even took the time to draw a little sketch in each one of them. That's class.
5. "God Hates Astronauts," on the other hand, is not classy at all. But the two issues I bought, written and drawn by the super-talented Ryan Browne, were probably my favorite comics from the whole weekend. I've seen Brown's banner at conventions before. It's strikingly well-designed. But I've never checked out his comics until now, and I'm more than glad I did.
The comics, which you can read for free on his website, feature a pull-quote from Darick Robertson, which is perfect, because Browne savages the conventions of superhero comics just like "The Boys" does. Only, Browne is legitimately funny.
"God Hates Astronauts" is some kind of mad, beautifully-drawn, mash-up of Ben Edlund's "The Tick" and Bob Burden's "Mysterymen" and every superhero parody Garth Ennis has ever wished he had written. If you can't tell, I just love the heck out of it. And Browne is also doing a little (or maybe it's enormously big) online experiment this year, where he's drawing a page a day for every working day of the year, in an improvisational style for a comic called "Blast Furnace!" The guy is out there, doing the work, and doing it well.
6. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention my newfound dinner companions, Dave Wachter, Christian Sager, and Eric Steiner. We shared the delights of strangely-delivered tapas and the exotic world of Pizzeria Uno. Wachter showed off some pages from a pitch he's currently working on, and all I'll say about it is that I would be shocked if it wasn't immediately scooped up for publication, and it looks amazing. I remember his appearances on the Around Comics podcast from a couple of years ago, and his reputation as one of the best convention sketch artists on the circuit, and, after seeing him in action, it is a well-deserved reputation. No J. Scott Campbell traces from this guy.
Sager and Steiner do a comic called "Think of the Children," but they are also renaissance men who do a bunch of other things as well, in and out of comics. I'm certainly looking forward of more work from both of them and more good times at various Baltimore restaurants next year. Perhaps we'll dare to sample the delicacies of the elusive "Five Guys."
7. Geof Darrow and Tim Truman shared a booth, and I just kept circling back to it, first to pick up the issues of "Shaolin Cowboy" I was missing, then to look through Truman's huge stack of original art, then to look at Darrow's prints, then to flip through Darrow's original drawings of various monsters and guys fighting monsters, then back to Truman's side to look once again at the original art pages.
I finally settled on a print of "Shaolin Cowboy" (from the #7 cover), and Darrow did a quick sketch-and-signature for me, and I bought a page of Truman art, from a "Grimjack" comic that had a nice bit of physical humor and aliens and some kind of Cyclops thing going on. Truman's orginal art is fascinating because I never realized that he draws his layouts on the back of his art board, then lightboxes it through to the other side. So he actually lays out his pages in reverse, which I haven't seen before. And that means for the price of one page of original art (which he was selling for about 1/3 of the cost I expected), you get a page of layouts and a page of finished pencils with inks. Of course, you can't display both sides at one, unless you have some kind of rotating glass case, but it's cool to see his process.
8. Imagine Jason Horn, Robert Wilson and me, eating ice cream cones, walking the streets of Baltimore at night. Because that happened. But add Mike Maihack to the mix, and you get a fierce gang of street toughs. No wonder the byways were practically empty when we were roaming around.
The four of us conquered Baltimore. But I was the only one left to tackle Miss Shirley's for breakfast on Monday.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan